“Being the First Is Irrelevant”: Melissa Arnot on Her Everest Achievements

The first American woman to summit Everest without oxygen canisters and make it back down alive explains why she snuck off to the mountain without alerting her sponsors—or even her parents

Jun 15, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
“Being the First Is Irrelevant”: Melissa Arnot on Her Everest Achievements

Melissa Arnot has summited Everest six times.    Photo: Jon Mancuso

This past Tuesday morning, two weeks after Melissa Arnot became the first American woman to summit and survive the descent of Everest without supplemental oxygen, she was in Los Angeles, filming a commercial for Microsoft. Arnot, 32, had planned the shoot before leaving for Tibet on April 25, where she and her boyfriend, mountain guide Tyler Reid, climbed the peak’s northeast ridge. (Reid used oxygen and supported Arnot.) Of Arnot’s six Everest summits, the latest came via the mountain’s less popular north side, which likely helped her keep the objective a secret.

Arnot says she is still exhausted and expects to need a month to fully recover. She will get about three quarters of that. In addition to the Microsoft commercial, she was working on a different project while in L.A.: buying a Sprinter van from a Craigslist seller in Bend, Oregon, for her next adventure, when she and 20-year-old college student Maddie Miller, Arnot's mountaineering mentee, attempt to reach the high points of all 50 states within 50 days. Arnot is scheduled to fly to Alaska to climb Denali, the first high point on her itinerary, on June 14. 

We caught Arnot in a frenzied moment of clarity to talk about Everest, mountaineering history, and why her sponsors might not be thrilled with her decision to go dark during the biggest month of her life.

OUTSIDE: You’ve tried to summit Everest without oxygen numerous times in the past. What did it feel like to finally succeed?
ARNOT: Elation and disbelief. I didn’t go in with an attitude of, “I’m going to go do this.” It was really like, “Can I do this?” I’m not an emotional person, but I cried many times, both on the summit and back at Base Camp, when I realized we were down and safe and I actually did this. 

What were the biggest physiological differences between using oxygen and not? 
I lost way more muscle mass on our summit rotation than I normally lose on Everest. I’m 10 pounds lighter than when I left for the trip, and that’s all muscle. One thing that felt different during the ascent was, from our last camp at 27,500 feet, I was incredibly focused. I literally could not make eye contact with any other climbers. I could talk to my partner, but I couldn’t look at anybody else, because if I did, I felt like I was going to lose the focus that I needed.

Can you take me through the last 1,500 feet of climbing on summit day? 
Around 4 in the morning [six hours into the ascent], I got really cold and started thinking I wanted to turn around, like, this isn’t going to work. Tyler was there to say, “The sun is nearly up. You don’t need to turn around. You’re going to get warm.” And he was right. We summited at noon. The highest camp is only about 1,800 feet below the summit, so it’s a crazy notion to think that it took me 14 hours to get there. That had a lot to do with the number of people on the route, which was much more than I expected. 

How was the descent? 
There were a couple of really slow groups that, even without oxygen, I was able to pass. I needed to pass them. We actually got stuck behind them on the way up, which was hard. Because without oxygen, if I put forth that extra energy to pass someone, I need to rest before I keep moving. 

On the way down, I think we spent an hour just sitting at the top of the second rock step, waiting for other climbers to descend. Our plan had been to descend below the [27,200-foot] camp as low as we possibly could get, but it just wasn’t possible. The weather was starting to shift as we got back to the camp, and we had already been climbing for 22 hours. So we ducked into a tent and had a chilly, very awake night, then started descending again when it got light.

How much of a qualifier do you think is required to describe American Francys Arsentiev’s summit without oxygen in 1998, when she died on the descent?
First of all, I think it’s totally worth noting that she summited. I don’t want to ever take that away from her family and the people associated with her. But I personally do feel it’s important to survive the descent for a summit to be considered complete. 

How driven were you to become the first American woman to summit and make it back down without oxygen? 
I had to ask myself this question numerous times: Would I still be as motivated to do this if another American woman just walked right up to the summit without oxygen, which I have always known could happen on any day of any season? Honestly, being the first was such an irrelevant part of it. It was about challenging myself to see if I could do this. I think it’s important for people to know that. I’m not chasing records. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m pursuing my passion and I’m supporting myself.

Did you feel like Everest, as an industry, was back to normal this year?
Yes. I spent a lot of time in Nepal acclimatizing before I went to Tibet, and in talking with the local families I stay with, everybody was saying, “We just want a normal season.” And I think that’s how you can define this year. It’s not that there weren’t tragedies; people died, and that was tragic. But it was very normal. Is it back? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it’s a wonderful thing to have a season where climbers were able to climb. 

You almost didn’t tell your parents you were going to try Everest again. Why did you keep your attempt a secret? 
I really wanted to skin it all down and just have this experience. Because you get really distracted by the accolades you receive when you’re doing something in the public eye. I think I wanted to decide if I was doing it for the right reasons, honestly. Like, am I doing this massively dangerous, really challenging thing because it’s how I’m supporting myself through storytelling and sponsorship? Or because it means something in my heart and it’s what I really want to do? 

When did you tell your parents? 
I told them the day before I flew to Tibet. So I was in Nepal for five weeks, guiding a trip and getting acclimatized, and I hadn’t told them that I was going to Everest afterward. When they asked me before I left the U.S., months ago, I said, “Oh, I’m not sure, we’re trying to work it out.” Then I never responded to any more questions about it. 

You decided not to have Internet capabilities during your trip and didn’t post on social media. How liberating was that? 
It was so incredible, honestly. I truly love social media, I have nothing against it, but it was really, really fun to be on a trip where I didn’t have any obligations to even consider trying to create content to share. It allowed me to focus much more intently on what I was there to do. And when I got back, I felt like I didn’t miss much. You would think I had thousands of emails, but I really didn’t. Nobody even noticed I was gone. 

Were your sponsors okay with you going dark? 
Well, that’s to be determined. I didn’t tell them, so they didn’t really have a say in it. I think that was a semi-irresponsible thing for me to do, actually. All my sponsors obviously want to capitalize on the Everest coverage that occurs naturally, which I don’t think is bad. And I didn’t give them that opportunity. So in some ways I wouldn’t be confused if they were upset with me, because I really deprived them of the opportunity to share the storytelling that I create normally, and that’s why they sponsor me, and it’s part of my job. Basically I was a no-show for a month—and a really important month, at that. But I hope that what I did makes up for it a little bit. 

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